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zoltar

Tom Hanks may have received top billing for the 1988 film Big, but one of the most pivotal characters received no screen credit at all. This character was not an actor, but a 9-foot mechanical arcade machine that grants your wish for a quarter.

While Zoltar Speaks may appear to be one of the finest examples of a vintage fortune-teller machine ever designed, it was unfortunately only a movie prop. And when you’re a collector who really wants a fantasy collectible that never existed, you make one yourself. I was able to build the replica shown here entirely in my basement shop. Nothing was outsourced.

I began the year-long project by dimensionally scaling screen captures from the movie DVD, using the actor’s height for reference. Zoltar’s head and torso were sculpted in clay over foam cores, and prototypes for decorative trim parts were machined from wood.

Patterns for the ornate coin ramp and raised-lettering castings were created using UV-cured polymer resin exposed through artwork created in Adobe Illustrator. Silicone molds fabricated from the original patterns were filled with urethane resin to cast the final parts.

Mechanisms and trim pieces were all custom-designed, with the exception of the purchased hand wheels that aim the coin toward Zoltar’s mouth.

Cloth-insulated wire was hand-laced into wiring harnesses, and old electrical items, hardware, and costume jewelry were found online and in surplus stores.

The only modern concession was the inclusion of a BASIC Stamp 2 microcontroller to control, among other things, a modified MP3 player for theme music and sound effects. User functions can be configured using the front coin-release push button while watching Zoltar’s eyes flash with coded sequences. The microcontroller and USB-to-serial connectors are hidden in a separate module that can be removed without affecting the basic electromechanical operation of the machine.

And what does this 600-pound monstrosity do? Insert a quarter, and it springs to life. Music plays, the eyes light, and the head rocks. The backlit panels light in timed sequence, guiding you to use the cranks to aim the coin ramp toward Zoltar’s mouth, make your wish, and press the button to release the coin.

If you’re lucky, the coin enters Zoltar’s mouth and your award card is released below. Your Wish Is Granted, the card says. For the moment, my wish is relatively modest: I need more room.

Roger Hess

Roger Hess is an eccentric engineer, tinkerer, collector, and dog lover living in suburban Minneapolis.


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